The U.S. has more guns per person than any other country, a ranking that is unlikely to drop even in the wake of the latest high-casualty mass shootings. Why are guns so pervasive here when they take so many lives (more than 36,000 in 2015)? Which Americans are the most strongly tied to their guns—and why?
Baylor University sociologists F. Carson Mencken and Paul Froese tackled these questions in a study published last month in Social Problems. They surveyed 577 gun owners about how their guns make them feel, creating a “gun empowerment scale” designed to measure owners’ moral and emotional attachment to their weapons. They also surveyed these owners on what they believe are the key causes of gun violence, and what they think of various gun policies. Scientific American spoke with Froese about the findings.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
In your study, what groups of people were the most emotionally attached to their guns, and why do you think they feel this way?
Gun owners are more likely to be male and white, but of course there’s diversity within that population. What we found was that people at the highest level of the gun empowerment scale, as we called it, were 78 percent white and 65 percent male. But what was really interesting—and I think this speaks to something much larger than just a gun issue—was that it was white men who had felt some kind of economic setback who were most attached to their guns.
That suggests to me that there’s something cultural happening. We have white men who have expectations about what it means to be a white man in America today that are not being met. Economic realities are changing in the United States and there’s this whole population of working-class white men who feel embittered, in the sense that maybe they don’t feel as economically successful or as powerful in their communities as they think they should be. For those men, we find that the gun has become an interesting symbol through which they’re trying to regain a nostalgic sense of masculinity.
Women and nonwhites who suffer from economic setbacks are not more likely to find empowerment in weaponry. They’re clearly finding it somewhere else, if they are finding it at all.
You also asked participants about their religious beliefs. How does religion seem to relate to gun empowerment?
Gun owners who are highly attached to a religious community are less likely to feel empowered by their weaponry. This suggests that the white men who are really attached to their guns are using guns as a substitute for other cultural sources of meaning and identity. We had this group of white men in the U.S. who were benefitting from hierarchies of power and economic inequalities that gave them a real sense of self and purpose, and so when they lost that—or they perceived that they were losing that—they searched for other ways of feeling masculine, and the gun was a natural thing to drift towards.
You also found that the people most attached to their guns were politically conservative and felt that violence against the government is sometimes justified. Can you talk a bit about that?
Again, our findings speak to something even deeper than the gun issue—and that is that amongst white men who are feeling economically embattled, they are searching for narratives to explain their experiences. Some of the narratives that they are attracted to are narratives of embattlement—the idea that there are forces out there that are trying to undermine them. Much of conservative media says that the government is always out to get you—out to take away your guns and your money—and so these kinds of narratives all feed together. What’s so fascinating is that you have a group of Americans—again, namely white males—who proclaim that they’re patriots. And, in fact, they say that their gun ownership makes them feel extremely patriotic. But they’re the group that’s most likely to say that it’s okay to take up arms against the government.
Research suggests that the majority of U.S. gun owners support some gun legislation and don’t necessarily believe it’s a good idea to arm everyone. What did your most emotionally attached gun owners think about these issues?
People who were very high on the gun empowerment scale were the ones who had the most pro-gun gun policy attitudes. They were the ones most likely to say that arming the public will make them safer and arming teachers will make schools safer—so there is this kind of belief or faith in the “good guys with guns can solve a problem” narrative. That narrative is not empirically supported, but at the same time it’s repeated and it clearly has a lot of believers. If your source of identity is gun ownership and you think it makes you a better member of your community, it would create some cognitive dissonance to turn around and say, “Well, actually, we need to make sure not many people have guns.”
Much of your past research has focused on religion. Why did you turn your attention to guns?
A core theme in all of my research is the human search for meaning. Many people find meaning through religion but that’s not the only way. The gun was a great topic to study because on some level it’s a lot simpler than religion, because it’s one thing. It’s an object, and it has very specific purposes, so we can really home in on how somebody feels about a gun and then get a sense of how emotionally and spiritually attached they are to the weapon. I’m not particularly interested in gun policy itself but rather in how meaning and cultural symbols affect people’s understanding of the world, which in turn then makes us to better able to understand their actions.